After reading my bit on the role that common assessments should play in an #atplc school, KHC stopped by and asked:

Bill, by common assessments, do you mean ALL formative and ALL summative?

My Language Arts team of eleven teachers has been mandated to do so. It seems VERY restrictive to me that every single formative and summative has to be exactly the same for all eleven teachers.

My first reaction, KHC, is that common assessments are the least of your worries! 

There’s just NO WAY that 11 teachers can collaborate with one another efficiently and effectively given the limited amount of time that we have for working together in schools.

Heck, I have a hard enough time coming to shared decisions with the THREE other teachers on my learning team.  I can’t even imagine trying to work with TEN other teachers all at the same time.

So PLEASE break your larger learning team apart into two smaller collaborative groups that meet with each other on a weekly basis!

That doesn’t mean you won’t make SOME shared decisions as a whole group.

Maybe you can spend staff development days together, brainstorming lists of essential knowledge and skills that ALL children need to learn.  Maybe you can have a few volunteer representatives meet monthly to ensure that there’s some consensus and shared direction across the hallway.

But regularly trying to meet with 11 people is a recipe for collaborative disaster.  No matter how great it sounds in theory, your meetings will be inefficient and ineffective on a good day and downright frustrating on a bad day.  You’ll quit before you even get started.

As for which assessments should be common, the answer is simple:  EVERY summative task must be common. Common summative tasks help to ensure that EVERY student on the hallway is exposed to the same essential knowledge and skills.

They are a tangible manifestation of the answer to the first key question of a learning community — What DO we want students to know and be able to do? — and they serve as curriculum guides for teachers who need to make daily choices about what to teach.

The process of developing common summative tasks also gives teams the opportunity to wrestle with core beliefs about curriculum and assessment together.  You’ll quickly learn what individual teachers think is essential for kids to learn — a conversation that teachers almost always avoid in traditional schools.

If you do decide to divide your large learning team into two smaller groups, it is important for common summative assessments to be developed by the ENTIRE team.

Your summative assessments will serve as the common thread between your groups, ensuring that every child is being exposed to the same knowledge and skills.

Maybe a small group of representatives from each collaborative group can develop drafts of the summative tasks together before sharing them with the entire group.  Doing so would save all y’all time — and if you choose those representatives carefully, the final products they develop will probably need little revision even after they are reviewed by the entire team.

As far as common formative assessments go, I’m always troubled when learning teams work hard to develop large sets of predetermined formative tasks because they are forgetting what formative assessment is SUPPOSED to be all about.

Formative assessment is designed to INFORM both teachers and students about progress towards mastering required curriculum.  When you’re doing it right, formative assessment is an ongoing, natural part of classroom practice.

A quick example:  We were working on developing hypotheses in class this week.  I wanted to get a sense for how well my students understood the key elements that go into writing testable questions.  So we looked at a few samples together.  Then, kids wrote a hypothesis for a lab we are about to start.

At that point, I wanted to see where my kids stood in their understanding of hypotheses —  I needed some formative feedback before I could figure out what to do next instructionally — so I asked them to put their heads down and to show me on their hands using a scale of one to five how confident they were that their hypotheses were on the mark.

What I found surprised me:  The VAST majority of my kids rated themselves low on the scale — ones, twos or threes.

I expected them to be far more confident after spending an entire class period looking at hypotheses, but I knew immediately that I’d need to try something new before my kids would be able to write testable questions on their own.

Long story short: I used a simple strategy to monitor the progress my kids were making towards mastering a required skill and then I changed my plans based on the surprising feedback that I collected.


When teams work to define EVERY formative task ahead of time, they are focusing on PRODUCTS instead of PROCESSES.

They’re forgetting that formative assessment is a VERB — it’s something that you DO.  Instead, they see formative assessment as a NOUN — something that you MAKE.

Sure, teams might agree upon a small set of common formative tasks that they ask students to complete along the way — but I’d rather see teams who care about formative assessment developing common sets of STRATEGIES for quickly gathering information about student progress.

Doing so reminds everyone that the best formative assessment isn’t scheduled.  It is a fluid part of our daily practice.

Does any of this make sense?


(*Author’s Note: The noun/verb analogy I’m using here was inspired by Marc Prensky, who made a similar argument about educational technology here.)

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